Celebrating in an Eastern Rite

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Celebrating in an Eastern Rite

ROME, 22 SEPT. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: My [Latin rite] diocese coexists with the Syrian diocese as well. As a child I used to attend the Syrian Mass; but when I want to celebrate a Syrian Mass there, I was told that I need certain canonical permission that is to be obtained from the Holy See. At the same time, I find that the Syrian priests in so many Latin congregations have no problem in celebrating in both rites. I approached many priests and liturgists, but I did not get a satisfactory answer. — J.F., Kerala India

A: While I am not sure that I will be able to provide a satisfactory answer, I will do my best.

The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches sets some of the rules regarding the participation of Latin-rite priests in Eastern celebrations. We must first observe that not just priests, but also members of the faithful, are ascribed to a specific rite. Canon 32.1 of the Eastern Code says: "No one can validly transfer to another Church sui iuris without the consent of the Holy See." Although the following canons list some cases when this transfer is more or less automatic, the underlying principle of permanence in one's own Church remains.

Ascription to a rite is different from attending the rite, and Catholics can attend Mass in any Catholic rite.

If a lay Christian needs permission to transfer rites, then one can understand that a priest who wishes to habitually serve in more than one Church would have to receive a special permission.

Leeway is allowed, however. For example, Canon 701 allows the bishop to permit priests from other rites to concelebrate. Canon 705 allows the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated at the altar of any Catholic church, while Canon 707 allows priests to use the Eucharistic elements and vestments of another Church if one's own are not available.

Celebration in one rite or another is not quite the same as a Latin priest celebrating in different languages or even celebrating both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman rite. Celebrating in the rite of an Eastern Church implies entering into a different canonical discipline because each Church has its own rules that entail much more than alternative ways of celebrating the Eucharist.

This might help explain why it is usually easier for an Eastern priest to be allowed to celebrate in the Latin rite than a Latin in an Eastern. Since the Latin rite is the most widespread of all Catholic rites, it is more common that an Eastern priest will find himself in an exclusively Latin environment than the opposite case. This often happens in places such as Rome and Germany where many Eastern priests go for postgraduate studies or to minister for a number of years. In such cases, their bishop can give the necessary permission for the priest to use the Latin rite during their stay.

It is also usually easier for an Eastern priest to learn the Latin rite than the opposite case.

Our correspondent's situation of growing up in Kerala, where Catholics from three rites frequently mingle, is rare although not unique. It is also unusual that all three rites mostly use Malayalam, the local language, in their respective liturgies. As we mentioned above, in most cases a Latin priest with a good pastoral reason for celebrating Mass according to an Eastern rite has to learn a series of complex rituals, a new liturgical calendar, and a host of other details. In some cases he also needs to learn a new language.

Likewise, the liturgy is not just a book with a set of instructions but forms part of a living tradition. In order to effectively minister to Eastern Church Catholics the Latin priest must also immerse himself in that spiritual tradition so that, as far as possible, he moves from within and not without.

These challenges are also faced by Eastern priests ministering to Roman-rite Catholics, but Eastern seminarians have far more contact with Latin theology and spiritually during their priestly training than their Latin colleagues have of Eastern traditions.

I think that these are the principal reasons why the Church, before allowing Latin priests to use both the Roman and an Eastern rite, seek to verify both the pastoral necessity of the permission and the priest's adequate preparation.

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Follow-up: Celebrating in an Eastern Rite [10-6-2009]

In our observations on Eastern priests celebrating in the Roman rite (Sept. 22) we mentioned that the Eastern bishop could give permission for one of his priests to celebrate in this rite. A reader pointed out: "It is not the Syrian bishop who can allow his priests to celebrate Mass in the Latin rite. It is the Latin bishop who can grant such permission."

Our attentive correspondent is technically correct that this permission would fall under the jurisdiction of the local Roman-rite bishop.

However, in practice it would appear that the habitual permission to celebrate according to the Latin rite is often implied when an Eastern-rite priest has been sent by his bishop to study or engage in pastoral service in a Latin environment. That is, the Eastern priest would ask the local Latin bishop for the usual faculties accorded to priests residing in the diocese and would presume that permission to celebrate according to the Latin rite would be included without seeing the need to make a formal request to celebrate according to this rite. This would be the case of some Eastern priests studying in Roman colleges where most of the residents are Latin rite.

The situation would differ in the case of Eastern priests who are incardinated in an Eastern diocese that overlaps or is coextensive with a Roman diocese. In some Western countries such as the United States, Australia and Canada, the Eastern eparchies often cover large swathes of the country as their faithful are frequently scattered in small communities. In this case a more formal permission would be needed from the local Latin bishop if the priest needed to celebrate frequently in the Roman rite.

Although very rare, there are some cases when an Eastern bishop does give formal permission to celebrate according to the Latin rite. For example, the Syro-Malabar Church, which is mostly based in southern India, has several missionary dioceses in northern India. In this case there is no corresponding Latin bishop as jurisdictions do not overlap. There are, however, popular shrines which are frequented by both Eastern and Latin faithful. In this case the Eastern bishop can grant his priests permission to celebrate according to the Latin rite for the pastoral benefit of the faithful.

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